Toussaint the Republican

Freed slave, Toussaint Louverture is one of the major figures of the Haitian revolution of the 1790s. Beyond the myth, and the reservations that he sometimes aroused, the historian Sudhir Hazareesingh paints a portrait of Toussaint as a fervent republican, the crossroads of worlds.

“The Black Spartacus”: the English title of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s work takes up this nickname, attributed to Toussaint during his lifetime and which takes its origin from thePhilosophical history of the two Indias by Abbot Raynal (1770). Toussaint Louverture can indeed be considered in more than one way as the liberator of the slaves of Saint-Domingue.

Born a slave around 1740 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, raised on a sugar plantation, Toussaint was freed before the start of the French Revolution. His participation in the slave insurrection which marked the start of the Haitian revolution in 1791 led him to fight first for Spain. He joined France in 1794, after the abolition of slavery was declared in Saint-Domingue. His military successes in the service of the Republic allowed his meteoric rise to the summit of power: he appointed himself governor for life of Saint-Domingue by proclaiming a constitution for the colony in 1801. But he only remained so for a short time: his desire to preserve the freedom of Saint-Domingue and former slaves in the face of Napoleon Bonaparte led to his arrest and death in April 1803 at Fort de Joux, in the Jura. A few months later, on 1er January 1804, General Dessalines proclaimed the independence of Haiti.

However, Toussaint is also an ambivalent figure: guaranteeing the autonomy of Saint-Domingue in the face of French representatives, he refuses the idea of ​​independence for the colony. He defends the freedom of former slaves, but forces them to return to work on plantations run by European settlers. He seeks to promote racial equality in the colony, but “finds himself increasingly trapped in an authoritarian spiral” (p. 370).

Sudhir Hazareesingh, historian specializing in the political and intellectual history of France at XIXe century, here shifts his research towards the age of revolutions (end of the XVIIIe – start of XIXe century) and chooses a biographical approach to “find Toussaint” (p. 24). Drawing on numerous English, French and Spanish primary sources and a very complete bibliography of the Haitian revolution, he offers his own interpretation of this complex character, made up of multiple contradictions and heir to numerous influences.

At the crossroads of influences

If this is the fourth biography of Toussaint Louverture published since 2014, that of Hazareesingh aims to overcome existing historiographical divisions. Thus, the author rejects the interpretation which would make Toussaint a “black Jacobin”, whose ideas would be solely inspired by revolutionary culture and the Enlightenment. He also opposes the revisionist view describing Toussaint as an opportunist seeking power and money above all. Fully part of the historiographical renewal of the Haitian revolution which, while highlighting its links with the French Revolution, insists on its singularity, Hazareesingh credits Toussaint with an original political thought, at the crossroads of several influences .

It is therefore the entire Haitian revolution that the author traces through the journey of Toussaint. If his participation in the first events of the Haitian revolution is debated due to the absence of sources, Hazareesingh attempts a convincing hypothesis: Toussaint would be the only significant link between the four leaders of the insurrection of 1791. He then led military campaigns between 1794 and 1798, which is an opportunity for Hazareesingh to return to his innovative combat techniques. Toussaint indeed demonstrates a “capacity for creative adaptation” (p. 105) by mixing the guerrilla techniques of Maroon slaves and conventional combat methods of European inspiration, making it possible to overturn racial stereotypes on military superiority Europeans. As for Toussaint’s meteoric political rise, Hazareesingh attributes it to his ability to rely on local networks as diverse as the Freemasons, the Catholic Church and municipal councils. But his controversial decision to bring back white planters while adopting repressive measures against farmers aroused much criticism and resistance. Hazareesingh interprets this decision as an economic necessity with disastrous political consequences.

Throughout this political journey, Hazareesingh discerns in Toussaint the pursuit of an ideal of fraternity, “less a philosophical concept than a lived experience which is expressed through active immersion in different networks” (p. 55). This ideal of fraternity, which pushes him to want to unify whites, free people of color and former slaves, is at the heart of Toussaint’s republicanism, “a Creole republicanism, a Louvreurian combination of European, African and indigenous concepts” (p. 210). This original political thought is embodied in “its capacity to seize pre-existing social and political forms, and to completely absorb them in order to redeploy them for its own ends” (p. 53).

The construction of a myth

While analyzing the history of the Haitian revolution through Toussaint’s political journey, Hazareesingh offers new keys to understanding this enigmatic character. Seeking to stay as close as possible to his personality throughout the story, he dissects each of his actions through the prism of his character: his tendency to secrecy, his meticulousness, his pragmatism, his duplicity, and his extraordinary diplomatic capacity. It is also through this aspect that Hazareesingh restores Toussaint’s political action in an Atlantic framework. He affirms that Toussaint was not only considering his room for political maneuver in relation to France, but also in relation to the other powers present in the Atlantic area, in order to guarantee Santo Domingo a certain autonomy and to secure its economic interests. . Here, the cross-section of French, British and Spanish sources allows the author to offer a detailed analysis of the complex diplomatic situation in which Toussaint Louverture found himself, and of the negotiations he conducted with the British and the Spanish as well as with the young Republic of the United States.

It is also from this Atlantic area that the myth of Toussaint will develop. By addressing it in his last chapter, Hazareesingh comes closer to his previous research themes which are the myths of Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle. Toussaint’s competing memories and the myth he embodies, already in the making during his lifetime, provide additional depth to the biographical analysis. To his detractors, especially the slave-owning planters of the Atlantic world, he is a bloodthirsty despot. For his admirers, he is this “black Spartacus” who allowed the liberation of slaves and Saint-Domingue from the French yoke. There are many who will take him as a model, but also those who will criticize him, particularly among the authors of negritude. This ambivalent memory is symptomatic of what Toussaint was, like Napoleon Bonaparte: a charismatic leader, a “ man on horseback » as it emerged in the Atlantic world in the age of revolutions, according to the thesis of David Bell.

“A hero for our times”?

Hazareesingh has chosen a literary, clear and accessible style for his biography. If this choice makes his work very pleasant to read, it sometimes sacrifices a clear hierarchy of sources for the fluidity of the style, particularly in the first chapter which analyzes the pre-revolutionary period of Toussaint’s life. Proven facts and unconfirmed anecdotes are thus sometimes put on the same level: one must pay attention to the footnotes to find out if an event is mentioned in administrative archives or in the Historical Notes by Isaac Louverture, anecdotes that the latter wrote about his father’s life in the early 1820s.

The chosen style also leads to a certain heroization of the character, visible in certain paragraphs (“When he galloped through Santo Domingo on his stallion, Toussaint was ready to open the doors of destiny”, p. 62). This heroic description tends to undermine interpretations that are nevertheless very well supported, for example when Hazareesingh gives the impression of trying to show that Toussaint’s rallying to the French camp in 1794 was not an opportunist movement. The facts he describes nevertheless seem to prove that if Toussaint was not driven by his sole ambition, he knew how to choose the most opportune moment to pledge allegiance to France, both to defend the abolition of slavery and to emancipate itself from the tutelage of its military leaders. This frequent heroization also results in a search for character coherence. Thus, when Hazareesingh indicates that Toussaint “was not yet a revolutionary, but undoubtedly, this culture of rebellion in which he was immersed during his years in Breda forged his character and his values, and prepared his emergence as the black Spartacus of the colony” (p. 57), the impression left is that of a teleological rereading of the character’s life.

Finally, Toussaint’s biography would undoubtedly have gained depth by drawing on the history of the genre. If, from the introduction, Hazareesingh emphasizes that feminist researchers have criticized the Haitian revolution for its “historical exclusion of women from the field of politics and citizenship” (p. 19), he then returns very little to the role of women in the Haitian revolution, and even less on the positioning of Toussaint in relation to them. Yet he repeatedly mentions the paternalism discernible in his proclamations, as well as his “traditional conception of masculinity” (p. 453). It is a shame that all these elements mentioned in a disparate manner did not give rise to a real analysis of the history of the genre in the Haitian revolution and in the vision that Toussaint Louverture had of the future of the colony.

Nevertheless, this work allows Hazareesingh to rehabilitate the figure of Toussaint, already ambivalent during his lifetime and who remains the subject of competing memories today. In France, forms of commemoration of the character are multiplying, “a major aspect of the work of critical re-examination of the history of slavery” (p. 482). However, Toussaint’s entry into the Pantheon only dates from 1998, and many of his statues installed in public spaces are away from central spaces or accessible to all. In Bordeaux, a dead end was named after Toussaint Louverture. The memory of Toussaint in France is therefore symptomatic of the ambiguity maintained with regard to the character and more generally to the Haitian revolution. There is still much to do in this area, but also at the university level: other generals of the Haitian revolution, like Dessalines or Christophe, are awaiting their biographers.